COVID-19 & Trusts, Estates and Vulnerable Adult Litigation

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Covid-19 has disrupted the lives of many individuals and none more so than our vulnerable and elderly friends and family. The majority of proceedings related to litigation involving trusts, estates, guardianships, powers-of-attorney, and vulnerable adult protection orders occur in the Ex-Parte Department of the Superior Court. The Trust and Estate Litigation team at Helsell Fetterman LLP is staying up to date on the following guidelines and are here to assist you in protecting the elderly and vulnerable adults in your life during this difficult time.

On February 29, 2020, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the public health emergency posed by Covid-19. On March 4, 2020, the Washington State Supreme Court began issuing a number of emergency orders that gave guidelines to local superior courts around Washington state on how to conduct court business in adherence to the state’s emergency orders. In compliance with these orders, the presiding judges of both the King County and Snohomish County Superior Courts have issued their own orders in regards to conducting court business related to trusts, estates, guardianships, power-of-attorney, and vulnerable adult protection orders.

Trust and Estate Litigation Matters (TEDRA)

Prior estate planning intended to protect our elderly and vulnerable loved ones are being put to the test during this difficult time. While estate plans are intended to simplify administration and the involvement of the courts, sometimes issues still arise along the way that require court intervention. Currently, litigation related to trusts, estates, and powers-of-attorney is still taking place in court, but it is currently being conducted telephonically until further notice. For example:

  • In King County, TEDRA matters are still being heard with oral argument and the hearings are being conducted telephonically. Information about these hearings can be found on the King County Superior Court’s Website.
  • In Snohomish County, all non-guardianship related TEDRA matters are being heard without oral argument unless specifically requested by the judicial officer. If a matter is being heard with oral argument by request of the judicial officer, the telephonic hearings for Snohomish County are being handled by CourtCall. Calendar schedules, information about CourtCall, and information about hearing confirmation can be found on the Snohomish County Superior Court’s Website.

Each county in Washington State is handling trust and estate matters differently. If you are dealing with an issue related to an elderly or vulnerable adult, contact us to see how we can help.

Guardianships

The needs of elderly and vulnerable adults whose functional restrictions prevent them from adequately protecting themselves are especially exposed during this Covid-19 crisis. In some situations, no prior estate plan or care arrangement exists, leaving loved ones with questions about how to direct care. Guardianships are the process intended to protect and support the welfare of these individuals who lack an existing power-of-attorney or other enforceable care arrangement.

  • New guardianships are complicated and involve interviews with a court-appointed guardian ad litem, statutorily mandated reports, and medical evaluations which must be filed with the court prior to a decision by the court to impose a guardianship. While the guardianship process continues to take place, it is certainly complicated by the need to adhere to social distancing requirements by conducting interviews by video conferences, filing through electronic court portals, and forms that may not be manageable for the general lay person. If you suspect that a loved one is in need of substituted decision-making to navigate through their personal or financial care, contact us to see how we can help. 
  • Current guardianships require annual reporting by Guardians appointed by the court to care for the individual subject to the guardianship. Despite the emergency orders, the deadlines for timely filing these reports have not changed. While the courts generally try and make the annual reporting process as simple as possible for non-attorney Guardians navigating the filing of reports with the court, the inability to currently access these court resources in person can complicate the process with the need to electronically file the right forms, appear telephonically before the court at a hearing, and receive the proper orders to continue the guardianship. If you are an unrepresented guardian having difficulty navigating the reporting requirements of a guardianship, the Trust and Estate Litigation team at Helsell Fetterman LLP can help.

Vulnerable Adult Protection Orders

It is no surprise that the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impact vulnerable individuals subjected to domestic violence.  Shelter-in-place orders and quarantine measures enacted by the state’s governor restrict movement in a way that puts victims at greater risk of abuse within their family unit, making violence in homes more frequent, severe, and dangerous.  Domestic violence also includes abuse against the elderly whose movements are also restricted due to the quarantine, in addition to the minimal opportunity for transparency and oversight as they depend on family members for care.

The Governor’s Proclamation 20-45 recognizes that even though the courts are operating at limited capacity, protection of victims of domestic abuse is paramount to public safety, and emergency protection orders are still available through the courts.  While King County has seen an increase in domestic violence reports,[1] it has implemented measures to ensure that victims have the support of the court even during the stay at home mandate.  As a new innovative step, King County courts ensure easy access for victims to seek emergency protection against abusers without having to physically be present at the courthouse to file protection orders.  This includes Vulnerable Adult Protection Orders protecting elders from abuse.  Protection orders can be done remotely by phone and email.  The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Protection Order Advocacy Program (POAP) provides advocacy and access to the courts through various tools to help with remote proceedings and electronic submissions to the court for petitions for protective orders.  The clerk’s office helps set up virtual hearings by telephone with a Judicial Officer.

Details and general instructions for remote proceedings for emergency protection orders in King County can be found here.  Specific information and guides to start a petition for a Vulnerable Adult Protection Order can also be found on the King County website.  If you or a family member are in need of protection, these resources are a helpful starting place to ensure that victims of abuse still receive the protection they need even amidst the COVID-19 quarantine.  Please contact one of Helsell Fetterman’s Trust and Estate Litigation attorneys with any questions or if you would like to learn more about how we can help you through the process.

[1] https://komonews.com/news/local/king-co-unveils-remote-protection-order-filing-for-domestic-abuse-victims


About the Authors

Victoria Wei

Victoria currently practices as a member of the firm’s trust and estate and commercial litigation practice groups.

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Kevin Khong

Kevin is an associate of the firm’s trust and estate litigation practice group and assists clients in matters involving will contests, trust account discrepancies, fiduciary abuse, guardianships, and committed intimate relationships.

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